How to Minimize Salt Damage on Turf

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November 25, 2020 at 2:05 pm Category:

Keeping surfaces at your facilities free from snow and ice during the winter months can take a lot of your time.   Regularly applying granular ice melters on sidewalks, steps, and entrances is a significant part of that effort.  As careful as you are, sometimes the consequences of this critical maintenance practice can linger well into the Spring. 

As Spring is ushered in by the first robin’s sighting, so is spotting that first strip of dead grass caused by too much salt.  As the snow melts in the Spring and the grass greens up, you’ll most likely see areas adjacent to many sidewalks that don’t follow suit.  Salt-based ice melters, such as sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, and calcium chloride, can lead to high salt toxicity levels in the soil.  This can damage turf and often result in total turf loss.  There are ways to conquer this calamity by taking a few simple steps.

Back Off on the Salt!

This decree by itself is the absolute best advice I can share.  Most applicators apply way too much granular ice melt.  The application rate of most conventional ice melters is about 4 oz. per square yard.  That means a 50-lb. bag should cover approximately 2000 sq. ft.  Not 200!  In these times of increased litigious claims and subscribing to over-the-top safety practices, many ice melters are applied at ten times that rate.  How often have you walked into a building to see sidewalks and entrances covered with ice melt?  This salt will go somewhere after it’s done its job.  That ‘somewhere’ is into turf areas, landscape beds, and other salt-sensitive vegetation.

The most significant positive impact you can make on reducing turf damage in the Spring is to be aware of the amount of ice melt product you and your staff use.  Over-applying ice melters do not equate to better results.  It just does not.  You can also experiment by adding chloride-free liquid deicers into your snow/ice management practices.  This will drastically reduce your dependence on salt-based granular products and allow you to use less of them.

Pre-treat with Gypsum Right Now. Do It Again Next Spring.

When applied properly and regularly, gypsum can flush salts through the soil profile.  Gypsum contains calcium.  Calcium is a vital turfgrass nutrient that also helps leach sodium (salt) through the soil and away from grassroots.  If you’d like to try this sure-fire approach to turfgrass salt remediation, follow these simple steps:

Step 1

Before the ground freezes, identify the areas you anticipate will be significantly affected by salt damage in late fall.

Step 2

Aggressively core aerify areas to open channels for gypsum, water, and seed to enter the soil.

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To core aerify, utilize a tool like these walk-behind aerators from Ryan Turf Renovation Equipment.

Step 3

Apply straight gypsum like Calcium Products Fairway Gypsum at a heavy rate of 25-50 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft.  Some gypsum products are more soluble than others.  The Andersons Black Gypsum DG is one of those.  It’s a high-quality source of gypsum and humic acid, a great combination for flushing salts and accelerating grass seed germination and establishment.  When applied at 10-12 lbs./1000 sq. ft., it gives you the best chance of salt remediation and turf regrowth.   Black Gypsum’s DG (dispersible granules) technology increases solubility allowing both gypsum and humic acid to “melt” into the soil profile quicker and more efficiently. 

Step 4

After the gypsum application, flush these areas with water.  This is most likely difficult to do in late fall without a reliable water source.  Fear not.  You can wait for melting snow next Spring to help with that.  Soaking these areas will move gypsum from the turf surface and into the soil where the salts are.

Step 5

After the snow has melted and as the grass begins to green, apply a second gypsum application to these areas at the same rate.  Note- core aerifying again before this application would be a plus but may be challenging to do if the ground is too soft.

Step 6

When the weather conditions permit, reseed damaged areas with a suitable grass seed mix like Reinders’ Salt Tolerant Seed Mix.  Applying a starter fertilizer like Reinders 18-12-6 + Avail or The Andersons 9-12-6 at ½ lb. per 100 sq. ft. will add necessary nutrients to ensure good seedling establishment.  Keeping these newly seeded areas hydrated for a minimum of four weeks is critically important.  Using seed mulches sparingly, like Profile Seed Aide, can help hold moisture in the soil during hot, windy days.

Summary:

Taking steps right now before the ground freezes and the snow covers these vulnerable areas is a great proactive step to minimize the amount of turf damage you’ll like to see next Spring.  Following up in the Spring with a second application of gypsum will go a long way in improving your chances of re-establishing grass in these problematic areas.  Good luck!

Salt Damage Questions?  Ask Joe.

Joe Churchill
Reinders Sports Turf Specialist
Email:  jchurchill@reinders.com
Joe Churchill

Joe Churchill

Joe works with sports turf managers at all levels, including K12 schools, colleges, universities, municipalities, and professional ball clubs in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. He is an active member of the Minnesota Turf & Grounds Foundation, the Minnesota Parks & Sports Turf Managers Association, the Minnesota Association of School Maintenance Supervisors, and the Sports Turf Managers Association, where he serves on the STMA Editorial Committee and is a member of the STMA Best Management Practices Task Committee. He is a 40-year Green Industry veteran and has worked for Reinders for 11 years.

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